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Pistone: Mid-Summer Musings

The calendar has somehow reached mid-July and NASCAR is ready to race into the second half of the 2020 season.

It’s understandable if the Coronavirus crisis has jumbled up not knowing what day of the week it is let alone the month. But here we are in the middle of the summer. Even after a nearly two-month hiatus because of the virus, NASCAR has been able to get 17 Cup points races in the books plus a slew of Xfinity Series and Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series races in as well.

There’s been some great racing, intriguing story lines and a number of interesting developments so far:

Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin have been the class of the Cup Series field. The duo has combined to win eight of the 17 races won with each visiting Victory Lane four times. Harvick has only missed the top-10 three times and leads the series with 10 top-five finishes. He also has led 651 laps the most of any driver. Hamlin kicked off the year with his second career Daytona 500 victory and has added wins at Darlington, Homestead and Pocono. While there are still nine races to go in the regular season, the two veteran drivers appear to be the ones to beat come playoff time.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is Kyle Busch. The defending Cup Series champion has struggled through a very disappointing first half of the year and remains winless. Busch still hasn’t won a stage and after roaring through the regular season a year ago with a boatload of playoff points built up as a cushion the Joe Gibbs Racing driver doesn’t have any in mid-July. He’s not been terrible as his seven top-five and nine top-10 finishes depict. But he’s not been Kyle Busch by any means.

Last year’s Xfinity Series "Big Three" along with fellow freshman John Hunter Nemechek have had a mixed bag of results so far in the Cup Series. Cole Custer’s Kentucky win last Sunday put the Stewart-Haas Racing rookie into a very select category of drivers scoring a victory at NASCAR’s highest level in year one. No rookie had won since Chris Buescher back in 2016. Tyler Reddick has had some solid outings and is in the playoff hunt while after a slow start Christopher Bell is improving with five top-10 finishes over the last 11 races. Nemechek has also opened some eyes with strong runs for the lower-budgeted Front Row Motorsports team. As the schedule brings the series back to tracks for the second and in some cases third time, it will be interesting to see if the freshman class continue to progress.

Custer’s Kentucky win earned him an automatic spot in the playoffs and jumbled up the race to make the post-season. The cutline in the point standings has an intriguing group of drivers in the mix right now including Jimmie Johnson who is 15th ahead of Austin Dillon by 24 points. Erik Jones and Reddick are also in the vicinity. But others like Bubba Wallace, Chris Buescher and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. are already in "must win" mode to have any shot of making the playoff field. They have nine chances left starting Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway.

This year’s Xfinity Series story isn’t about a "Big 3" but more about entertaining races. Yes, Chase Briscoe is having a breakout season with five wins already and Austin Cindric finally broke through with not one but two oval track victories when he swept Kentucky last weekend. But on a near weekly basis, the Xfinity Series puts on some of the best race of the NASCAR season. The lower downforce package that is different than what’s used in the Cup Series has definitely added to that entertainment value at intermediate tracks. And the Indianapolis road course debut so far might be the race of the year. The race for the championship should be a wild ride in NASCAR’s number two division.

The opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Motor Racing Network.